Runtime: 113 minutes
Writers: Maïwenn, Teddy Lussi-Lodeste, Nicolas Livecchi
Actors: Maïwenn, Johnny Depp, Melvil Poupaud, Benjamin Lavernhe, Suzanne De Baecque, Capuine Valmary, Laura Le Velly, India Hair, Ibrahim Yaffa, Djibril Djimo, Pauline Pollmann, Thibault Bonenfant, Diego Le Fur
By Sarah Manvel
It is an undeniable fact that casting Johnny Depp as the King of France in “Jeanne du Barry” is a masterstroke. The whole world knows who he is, and everyone has a strong opinion about him. Some think he is a god among men who can do no wrong, while others think his status and power have turned him into a monster capable of endlessly exploiting other people, especially women. This casting also overshadows Maïwenn’s phenomenal work both as director and star, which is also, and regrettably, appropriate. When life and art mirror each other too closely it’s difficult to assess the art on its own merits, as it will be assessed a hundred years from now, when all of us are dead. But this is also the point.
Women are rarely judged on their own merits but instead those of the men around them. Jeanne du Barry was the illegitimate daughter of a cook, educated by the family her mother worked for, before her beauty and intelligence made her too much of a threat. Eventually and inevitably she became a courtesan and ended up in a relationship with Jean-Baptiste du Barry (Melvil Poupaud), who acted as her procurer, an arrangement which Jeanne allowed because of her love for Jean’s motherless son Adolphe (Thibault Bonenfant). The rising circles in which she started to move decided Jeanne might be a tempting diversion for the king. There’s an introduction at court, for which Jeanne disdains the frills, wigs and jewels of the other ladies for a flower in her hair, a plain white dress and a black ribbon around her neck. In Versailles this is like a pot of violets surrounded by hothouse orchids and it’s no wonder the King takes notice. (Jürgen Doering has a great time with the costumes, of course, and Laurent Dailland’s cinematography does justice to both the gorgeous setting of Versailles and the intimacy Jeanne seeks inside.) The impression is such the King’s valet La Borde (an excellent Benjamin Lavernhe) immediately summons her for a gynaecological check-up, which Jeanne passes with flying colors. La Borde then instructs her never to turn her back to the king, so guess what she immediately does. Later, when presented at court, La Borde tells her on no account must she make eye contact as she curtsies. Guess what happens. Fortunately Jeanne does this so charmingly, tongue so firmly in cheek, that the King – and most men within a hundred miles, including Le Dauphin (Diego Le Fur) – are enchanted. Of course the women of Versailles, starting with the King’s four daughters (Suzanne De Baecque, Capuine Valmary, Laura Le Velly and the unimprovably named India Hair), are quite another story.
But the key scene is when Jeanne is invited to dine with the nobles as the king’s guest for the first time. She shows up in what’s basically a bridal gown, scandalizing everyone, but the great shock is when the king gives her a present to mark her as the favourite. For some people, the present is a thing, but Jeanne immediately treats the small black boy (Ibrahim Yaffa as a child, Djibril Djimo as a teenager), whose name is Zamor, as the child she doesn’t have. Certainly he is the only person at court in a more precarious position than she is, and there’s a quietly ugly scene with the princesses when Jeanne makes it clear Zamor is not her slave, to their racist disdain. Was the real Jeanne so open-minded? In this work of art of course she is. We are meant to admire Jeanne’s kindness to the enslaved child and her gift for down-to-earth modernity, such as sometimes wearing men’s clothes and ignoring the rules of etiquette to make the king laugh. When she is given her own apartment complete with ten staff who bow to her, she curtsies right back.
The reason Maïwenn wanted to make such a strong impression of modern decency is made clear through an early line in the narration (voiced by Stanislas Stanic): “What good is innocence when others have guilty desires?” Jeanne’s entire life (as that of Maïwenn’s) was shaped by the decisions of men made before Jeanne was old enough to properly understand. But society grants the power to the men with the guilty desires, and not to the women whose bodies and minds are permanently shaped by them. It’s neither fair, nor right, but it’s how it is. Maïwenn understands this in her core, and has the sense to make the king be almost beside the point; the journey here is Jeanne’s, and her struggles are the film’s. Maïwenn is outstanding, there’s simply no other word for it; it’s an incredible marriage of both acting and directing skill along with world-beating charm. Mr Depp looks nearly embalmed, but he hardly needs to do anything else. There’s a ferocious scene where he confronts his daughters, who have been encouraging Marie-Antoinette (Pauline Pollmann) to blank Jeanne at court, where they stammer in fear as he walks around the room, glowering ferociously at each of them in turn and saying absolutely nothing at all. Is it right? Is it fair? But he is the man with the power, and there is nothing they can do to about it.
This is the great question about power, isn’t it – the price you have to pay to get it, and whether that price once paid makes you someone worthy of that power after all. The Cannes Film Festival, which is almost a modern-day replica of Versailles with its hierarchies, social climbing and unshakable faith in its own importance, is a perfect home for this film. However, as the French revolution permanently changed how France accepts the power of others, change is coming in the movie world too. This is one of the first movies to toy explicitly with that post-#MeToo dynamic, and that means it’s worth seeing regardless of your opinion of the players involved. But what will be remembered is the scene where Jeanne crawls across a table in a white dress, eating the desserts of others off her fingers while they move the candles out of her way and laugh at her for having such an obvious good time. It’s the scene where La Borde translates the medical jargon of the gynaecologists for Jeanne and realizes she’s not afraid, either of him or of meeting the king. And it’s the scene where Jeanne bursts into a conference room, heedlessly interrupting a meeting of state with such incredible happiness that even her enemies must acknowledge it. In a hundred years’ time things will certainly be different, and the art will have separated from the artists. Perhaps by then we’ll have an even better understanding of what power can do and how it shapes our stories. In the meantime “Jeanne du Barry” remains superb food for thought.